Peter Huang is the prized boy in a traditional Chinese family living in small-town Ontario. Named Juan Chuan, meaning powerful king, he is the only son in the middle of three girls. His immigrant father was thrilled to have his one boy to carry on his legacy. But Peter is carrying a difficult secret, one that he believes will shatter his parents. Peter is certain that he was born in the wrong body and is really a girl.
Peter and his sisters Adele, Helen, and Bonnie all long to break free from the confines of their home and small town to live as who they truly are. As Peter’s journey takes him to Montreal, he is free to explore who he is though the shadow of his father is difficult to shake.
For Today I Am A Boy is a coming-of-age book that is sensitive, beautiful, and honest. The debut novel by Kim Fu, it is a story of what happens when culture and identity clash, and the burdens that we carry with us.
There are two issues at play in this book. The first is the story of an immigrant family, a father who who wants his family to become Canadian, who wants his family to belong in this culture just like everyone else, but whose ideas and actions remain in his old ways. The children all long to escape the home and when it is time, go as far away as they can. The second issue is Peter’s and his knowledge that he is a girl despite his appearance and how he handles it in the context of his family and culture.
Here is what I found amazing about this book. Peter’s journey as a transgender person doesn’t take up the book. It is always present but through much of the book it isn’t the main story. At first, I was surprised about that and also worried that the book didn’t “go there” enough but as I read more I realized just how far from the truth I was. It’s those little moments, like when a young Peter is asked at school to draw what he wants to be when he grows up and he answers “a Mommy,” that hit home, that make his journey real and tender. It is Peter’s quiet voice that gets our attention.
I was expecting something a bit more sensational but this book is the opposite and I’m appreciative of that. Some people may feel that it doesn’t go deep enough into the issues that transgender people face, but either way, the book does tackle the stereotypes and does contribute to the conversation. As someone who does not personally know anyone transgender, this book helps me to understand the issues and journey in a sensitive way and in a way that isn’t demeaning to the struggle, something I feel is still difficult to find.